The University of Mississippi got the green light to continue funding a controversial drug unit that faced criticism for coercing college students into working as informants.
On Thursday, the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees approved a request from UM to renew its interlocal agreement with Lafayette County and the city of Oxford to fund the drug unit commonly called the Metro Narcotics Unit for another year.
According to the new agreement, UM will continue to contribute $150,000 to the unit, an amount matched by Lafayette County and the city of Oxford. The unit’s total funding will stay at $450,000.
This money funds the salaries, overtime and health insurance for the four full-time officers who comprise the Metro Narcotics Unit, as well as supplies used to undertake drug busts like buy money and body wires. These officers are overseen by the Oxford and University of Mississippi chiefs of police and Lafayette County Sheriff Joey East.
The Metro Narcotics Unit is one of hundreds of drug task forces that were started in the 1980s as the federal government doled out funding as part of the War on Drugs. It’s common for these task forces to use informants in the course of drug investigations.
What makes the Metro Narcotics Unit somewhat unique is its practice of recruiting college students to work undercover in lieu of arrest. At any given time, the unit oversees between 30 and 45 informants, according to statistics it provides to UM, and most new informants are students.
This practice has repeatedly come under scrutiny in recent years. In 2015, a series of articles in Buzzfeed detailed the methods that officers in the unit use to coerce students into working as informants.
In one instance, Buzzfeed reported that officers coerced an 18-year-old freshman at a community college near Oxford to work as an informant by threatening to arrest him on felony charges for the possession of 12 grams of marijuana. At one point, the student attempted to stop working for the unit after he was assaulted for informing on an acquaintance, according to Buzzfeed. Metro officers responded by arresting the student in his biology class.
Buzzfeed’s reporting was followed that year with a 60 Minutes segment that led to calls from angry parents and alumni demanding UM pull out of the unit.
In response to the national attention, the university said the unit would conduct an “extensive review” of its procedures and practices, including evaluating whether it was appropriate to keep utilizing college-aged people as informants. After the review, the unit said it would start allowing college students to call their parents to discuss if they should become informants.
More recently, the university faced renewed calls to stop funding the unit after Kevin Frye, a defense attorney in Oxford, “called for a suspension in the prosecution of all Metro Narcotics cases in the Lafayette County Circuit Court” following a report in the Mississippi Free Press.
Though Frye’s request was denied, advocates for police reform in Oxford hoped it could pressure UM to stop participating in the unit. One reason Frye and local advocates thought this might happen is that the unit’s practices seem to run counter to the way UM now seeks to handle student misconduct.
“In our community, as in the rest of the nation, the war on drugs has proven to be a failure of policy,” Frye told the Mississippi Free Press in May. “That’s one reason we see the university making strides away from punitive treatments and toward a public health approach to their students with respect to controlled substances.”
IHL approved UM’s request, which was part of the consent agenda, without discussion.
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.